like the third floor of the Hirshhorn -- is filled to overflowing by the interesting, insistent, jangly and jittery post-Modernist exhibit that opens there today.
"Content: A Contemporary Focus, 1974-1984: An Exhibition Celebrating the Tenth Anniversary of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden" could not contain much more. The "Content" show is crammed -- with photographs, philosophies, politics and fears, blood-and-guts and bunnies, juke boxes and jokes. Howard Fox, Miranda McClintic and Phyllis Rozenzweig, the three curators who picked it, chose 157 objects, some enormous, by 147 artists from this country and abroad. But their exhibit, to its credit, is more than just a survey. It is a show that makes a point.
But what it stands for is not half so clear as what it stands against.
It stands against the cool, the minimal, the formal. "What you see is what you see," said the Modernist Frank Stella of his wholly abstract art. That's not what you see here. Every object shown, whether grand or silly, refers to sex, war, money, Miles Davis, roller skates or something else outside itself. The "Content" show contains no wholly abstract art at all.
It stands against the pure. The "Content" show forgives aggressively "bad" painting by A.R. Penck of Germany, Pat Steir of New York, Ken Kiff of London and many others. Arnulf Rainer of Vienna paints on photographs of corpses, Hermann Nitsch, his countryman, works with slaughtered animals. This art accepts the gross. New York painter David Salle, one of the art world's biggest names, is represented by an ill-drawn figure whose boneless limbs would put an art school drawing class to shame. Even objects that succeed here raise a shiver of disquiet. Those who walk into the labyrinth built by Robert Morris -- its corridors are only 18 inches wide, the corners that they turn are as sharp as knives -- will sweat with anxiety. This show unnerves.
Its curators believe that they have detected -- beyond the mixed media and pluralist forms of recent vanguard art -- a shared attitude to what they call content. And they may be right. The art they have selected irritates and goads. It never strives to calm.
Still, "Content" should not startle those who for the past 10 years have been reading the art magazines or visiting the galleries. Many well-known figures -- the "Three Cs" from Italy (Sandro Chia, Francesco Clemente and Enzo Cucchi), England's Gilbert and George, Richard Long and Hamish Fulton, the best new German artists (Joseph Beuys, Anselm Kiefer, Jo rg Immendorff and Markus Lupertz), and such enormously successful younger New York artists as Julian Schnabel, Robert Longo, Neil Jenney and Keith Haring -- are well represented. The spirit of this show -- its reliance on disquiet, its impatience with abstraction -- was in the air in Washington long before the Hirshhorn opened to the public in 1974.
In December 1967, an Edward Kienholz retrospective opened at the now-defunct Washington Gallery of Modern Art. Nobody who saw its visions, its victims and its harrowing assemblages has managed to forget them. Walter Hopps, who directed that museum in the 1960s, liked alternating shows of color-field painting and Greenbergian abstraction with the sort of content-laden work celebrated here. There is a splendid recent work by Kienholz and his wife -- it shows a pregnant woman rising -- in the exhibition. When the Kienholz show opened in 1967 most of us in Washington had seen nothing like it. "Content" makes apparent the victory he's won.
Others fought with him. Some of those old warriors against pure abstraction -- Robert Morris (who had a retrospective at the Corcoran in 1969), William T. Wiley (whose retrospective opened there in 1972), Jim Nutt of Chicago, who showed here with The Hairy Who in 1969, and, of course, Andy Warhol -- are in the Hirshhorn show.
Their sort of art did not suddenly appear in 1974. It had been around for years. Nor has pure abstraction been driven from the field. One feels it in the wings, waiting to return.
Those old shows at the Washington Gallery of Modern Art, and others at the Corcoran (the X of Ronald Bladen, "Smoke" by Tony Smith, "Gilliam, Krebs, McGowin"), and still others on the street ("The World's Biggest Cowboy Boots," Alice Aycock's "Game of Flyers"), helped point the way to one of the "Content" show's successes -- its reliance on assemblages.
The Hirshhorn exhibit is too full of photographs. (All told, there are more than 400 on the walls). It is also full of words. (Putting words into your art is an easy path toward "content.") And it is surprisingly weak in painting. The Longo is brilliant, the Schnabel is the best he has displayed in this city, the Kiefer and the Lupertz and the Jenney, too, are fine, as is a large and eerie drawing by Troy Brauntuch. But theatrical assemblages, stage-set installations, dominate the show.
The Aycock, "Savage Sparkler," seems the sort of machine that might turn the stars. Terry Allen of Texas has installed a beautiful -- and funny -- piece called "The Embrace" that deals with wrestling, romance, the two-step and the crow. Beuys' "Berlin: News From the Coyote" included the artist -- and a coyote -- when displayed in Manhattan in 1979: though neither appear in the Hirshhorn's installation, the piece is moody still. Vernon Fisher's wall piece beautifully evokes the bafflements of childhood. Each of the 50,000 nickels-with-matchsticks that Chris Burden has glued to the floor is supposed to represent a Russian tank. (They do the job quite well: Matches suggest firing guns and all those Monticellos do look a bit like metal treads.)
Washington's Jim Sanborn (one of two Washington artists represented, the other is Yuriko Yamaguchi) has installed a piece called "Lightning and Other Earthly Forces." It includes lodestones, magnets and sandstone split as if by a bolt from the blue. The Sanborn is one of the most orderly objects in the "Content" show, and the viewer who comes on it after finally escaping from Morris' gray "Labyrinth" seizes on its balances and purities as he might on sunlight and clean air.
Paul Thek's installation is called "Missiles and Bunnies." If you have ever dreamed of sailing off, like Noah or like Wynken, Blynken and Nod, into dreamy waters, and if you have ever thought of making friends with animals, as they do in Disney's movies -- and if you dread the thought of being fried in war -- Thek's piece will be clear.
Because the "Content" show includes words by Lawrence Weiner, and by Douglas Huebler, and photographs of photographs made by Sherrie Levine, it is more flawed by pretension -- and by unconvincing deep-think -- than it might have been. It is easy to complain of the many influential artists it's excluded: Ed McGowin, for example. And there is something unpleasantly conventional -- a bit too easy -- about many of the angry and apocalyptic visions on display.
There are many other ways -- beyond the self-indulgent scribble, the intentionally baffling photograph and the quick, horrific shock -- for art to reach the real world.
"Content" deserves many visits, and will not soon be forgotten. But it is dealing with a look, an attitude, a style, already in decline. It recalls the past. It does not predict the future.
It closes Jan. 6.